How to revise your manuscript without losing your mind

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Seriously, does anyone know how to do this? If you do, please tell me, because my mind done got lost about halfway through the process.

So, I’m done with draft 2 of a novel that is slowly, slowly inching towards readability. This is the first time I’ve ever revised a manuscript of this length instead of tossing the whole thing in the virtual trash and starting over fresh. This was the first time I ran into a whole new set of challenges as a writer:

  • I had no idea how to estimate how long it would take me to revise a manuscript. I set a deadline for the end of March, and ended up staggering over the finish line in the middle of May. I hate blowing deadlines, even self-imposed ones, even ones that were completely untenable from the get-go.
  • I didn’t have an easy way of charting my progress. I tried Pacemaker for a while, but it wasn’t nearly as visually exciting as the charts I made to track my rising word counts in years past. And that was part of the problem: I’m very motivated by watching a number counting up towards a complete manuscript, but I hate to see one counting down towards a deadline.
  • I also didn’t have a reliable way of quantifying how much effort I was pouring into my work. I breezed through many of the scenes in Act 1, making only minor tweaks, but I scrapped and rewrote a good chunk of Act 2 and the entirety of Act 3.

And there’s the rub: I rewrote a lot of this manuscript, but not always in massive chunks. A paragraph here, a few pages there, and it didn’t take long to lose track of how much of my word count was new. So, no pretty graphs this time. And no excerpts to post on the blog yet, either, because this sucker still needs a lot of work.

So what’s next? Some well-deserved rest, some tinkering with just-for-fun projects, and then I’ll jump back into the third draft towards the end of 2016. I plan on using this blog more actively, both for funny articles and for some shorter works of fiction that don’t need a massive multi-year editing process to smooth off those rough edges.

Crispy fried

I have written 100,000 words of fiction since January 1st.

Don’t start with the congratulations yet, though. They’re not great words. They’re first draft words, and one draft isn’t even finished yet (yes, I jumped into the second project less than 24 hours after finishing the first, this was not a wise decision). To meet the goals I set for myself, I’ve got at least 30,000 more words to write before December 31st. And then I have to edit, which will involve a major structural overhaul of a story that was structurally unstable to begin with. And then I have to edit some more just to put some meat on this story’s bones. And then I have to find some beta readers, and get their suggestions for more edits. And then I have to edit some more. Then I can start querying, and in the very unlikely event that I have any success at that, I will enter yet another round of edits.

I will do all this and also find time to eat, sleep, work out, hang out with friends, maintain a relationship, and work hard enough at my full-time job to ensure that my raises keep pace with the rising cost of living in my area. And of course, I have to get started on the next project.

Writing a novel is like climbing a mountain. Does that sound trite? Of course it does. Everyone believes they could climb a mountain, and they will climb a mountain someday, when they feel up to it. From a distance, the mountain’s sides don’t look that steep. You just walk straight up the side, right? Then one day you decide to drive out to the trailhead, and the mountain seems a lot taller from this close, but you can still picture yourself at the top. So you start walking, and the slope seems a lot steeper when you’re relying on your legs and not your imagination to carry you, and after a tremendous amount of effort the mile markers are telling you you’re only a third of the way up.

And some jerks are strolling up the mountain like it’s nothing at all. Some are jogging up the mountain. Experienced hikers are passing you. They have climbed many mountains before. They won’t even be sore tomorrow. Some of them are so good at climbing mountains that companies will give them vast sums of money to keep going.

I am scaling a bigger mountain than last year. I am still not close to the top, but now I can tell you exactly how far I’ve got to go. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I should keep walking.

Victory Lap

Well, I just finished another text-based product of novel length.* It’s still rough, but it’s the closest thing I’ve ever produced to a coherent piece of fiction on this scale: the story is more plot than hole, the characters are iffy but not completely undeveloped, and the structure is close to coherent. No major characters pop into or out of existence halfway through. That’s something!

I learned a tremendous amount since last year about working on a project of this magnitude. Check out my weekly word count for 2014:

Words per week

It’s still not soaring as high as 2012, but I’m still writing more consistently than I was in 2013. 2014 has been a better and less stressful year for me personally, which certainly didn’t hurt my output, but I also learned how to outline a complete story before I’m in the middle of it and floundering. You can see the effect on my total word count:

Total word count

I started the year with almost 10,000 words in my outline, and those rough descriptions of upcoming scenes were hugely helpful when I got stuck. I used a lazy version of the snowflake method, which was handy because the story I was telling was not exactly in chronological order.

Now it’s time to put this manuscript out of sight while I try to put it out of mind for a few months at minimum. I could do this crazy thing called “relaxing,” but I’m probably going to jump straight into another project.

 

* Yes, I know that “novel length” is up for debate as a unit of measurement.

Hey baby, what’s your Myers-Briggs Type Indicator?

I have seen many personality-type fads come and go in my time. Astrology was already on its way out when I was a pre-teen; nowadays, it survives mostly in psychic gift shops and tongue-in-cheek Onion articles (even Cosmo, that well-meant communication from our alien friends to squishy human women, has relegated the horoscope to a single page behind the classifieds). The eastern zodiac came into vogue briefly, but never crossed over into American popular culture. The Enneagram was a hit in certain circles, but the complex quizzes and elaborate charts kept it from reaching the mainstream.

But the Myers-Briggs test stuck; it’s used in hiring, in dating, education, and so much more. Even normally reputable publications have fallen for it, with articles instructing readers on Caring for Your Introvert and How to Manage an Extrovert. And then, of course, there are the Ambiverts. Most of these articles begin with the assumption that introverts and extroverts are completely opposing personality types, with radically different needs and expectations, and navigating the other’s world requires a slew of self-help books and explanatory articles and, of course, an exhaustive understanding of your own Myers-Briggs profile.

Sometimes I enjoy hanging out with people. Sometimes I prefer to be alone. I believe this is called “the human condition.”

second stupid scale
But can I determine exactly how much I like hanging out with people, using this chart?

While the Myers-Briggs test is one of many ways to examine your own assumptions about problem-solving and social skills, it has plenty of problems as a categorization system. It groups people into opposing categories, when actual humans reside largely in the mushy middle between these extremes; very few people are always exhausted by the rigors of social interaction, just as only the rarest are always in need of attention. It groups traits together that don’t necessarily fit: one person can be both gregarious and in need of downtime, or shy around strangers but also fond of large parties.

fifth stupid thing
Notice that all of these are just variations of “don’t be an asshole”

Worst of all, in my observation, it encourages people not to test the limits of their personal comfort. It’s entirely your choice to describe yourself as an introvert, and decide that you do not like meeting strangers or going into crowded spaces because of your personality type–but in the course of your life you will have to meet many strangers and go into many crowded spaces, and if your fear of doing so is preventing you from events you would otherwise enjoy, this is something a therapist can help you overcome. Or you might consider yourself an extrovert, and become anxious when there is no one to keep you company. Over the course of your life, there will be times when you will find yourself alone for a short time–and again, if the fear of this possibility is crippling, professional help is easy to obtain.

fourth stupid thing
Notice that all of these suggestions are also variations on “don’t be an asshole”

Because “personality” is not a series of rules etched into the brain. It is the sum of an individual’s preferences and peeves; it is what makes each of us unique. But personality is not behavior; behavior can be changed by dint of personal effort, by pushing past the boundaries of comfort. And this is something that we all must do, because the world is not and never will be individually tailored to our personal ideas of comfort.

Myers-Briggs aficionados would have us believe that the way people behave is determined entirely by their personality type. This is not true. And even if it were, the Myers-Briggs is just another clever way of telling people what they want to hear about themselves.

 

All pictures are from this article, one of the finest collections of baffling stock photos I have ever seen.

How I spent 2013

2013 marks my second year of completing a novel-length textual product.* I didn’t technically finish a novel, in the sense that I do not have a manuscript that is ready to be released into the world, but I did complete the structure on which a more polished story will one day hang, and I passed the word count that is generally considered to be novel-length.**

* I technically spewed out more words when I was freelancing in 2011 and the beginning of 2012, but that wasn’t fiction and wasn’t on my own projects so I’m not considering it part of my work count.

** I’m going off the NaNoWriMo rules, which count 50,000 words as the threshold for a novel. Other counts differ; for a final draft, I’m shooting for somewhere between 80-100,000 words.

Because I’m fascinated by how different people handle the writing process, I tracked my word count for the past two years and made some graphs showing my progress.

Words per week

Words per week

I kind of stumbled into my 2012 project; you can see the spike in April where I wrote the first bit, then the long stretch of time when I left it alone before realizing that hey, there might be something there after all. Once I realized that I wanted to finish the story, I quickly got into the habit of writing at least 2000 words per week (mostly by writing on my lunch breaks).

In 2013, I started off knowing that I wanted to do a similar project, but my word count was lower per week and I finished later in the year. 2013 was a much rougher year for me personally. Some of the dips down to 0 were weeks when an illness/emergency/move/whatever meant that all my energy went into something other than writing. Those multi-week stretches at 0 are times when I didn’t have a working computer (my old desktop ate power supplies for breakfast).

The way I wrote in 2012 was definitely more fun, and I’ll try to get back in the habit of writing every day in 2014.

Word count over time

Word count rising

Here’s a cheerier chart. You can see how long I spent not paying attention to writing in 2012, and the sudden burst of effort towards the end of the year when my self-imposed deadline was looming. Starting earlier in 2013 paid off; despite my lower weekly word counts, I was still ahead of my 2012 progress until mid-October. I’ll be doing the same in 2014, with the benefit of an outline so I can write even faster.

Total word count

total words two years

The story I wrote in 2012 was the only fiction project I was seriously tinkering with that year. In 2013, I wrote a smidge over 12,000 words on a just-for-fun side project, plus 4,000 words on the outline for the story I’ll be working on in 2014 (I didn’t track these projects in my weekly word count chart; that was just the novel-length textual product). So, despite the low weekly word counts and 10,000 words less in the tally at year’s end, I did surpass my word count from 2012. I also started this blog, but I’m only counting fiction in these totals.

Although it’s not apparent in the charts, my 2013 project is much, much closer to resembling an actual novel. It doesn’t have any scenes left unfinished, its plot is more or less functional, and I won’t have to completely hack it to bits in the editing process. The 2012 project was so rough that revising it will be less like polishing and more like selecting passages to recycle in a better story.

What now?

Now I lock my little proto-novels away in a drawer, where they can stew in their own juices for a while before I’m ready to start editing. Since I’ve proved to myself that I can write something 1) long enough to be considered a novel and 2) semi-coherent, I’m taking on a more ambitious project in 2014, with the goal of ending the year with something much closer to a final draft.